I think I was 15 when I first realised what the term ‘parallel society’ really meant and how it connected to my own existence. Following the influx of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe in 2016, my social studies teacher expressed great worry that ‘they’ would create and cluster into, what she perceived to be, parallel societies in Denmark. I remember she mentioned Mjølnerparken, Holmbladsgade, and Tingbjerg as examples of these mentally or physically isolated spaces following their own social norms and rules, with no respect for Danish value systems and with no will to integrate into majority society.
Whilst I had heard about parallel societies on television and read about it in the newspapers, it was strange to be confronted with the term in school. What was even more strange, was the realisation that I had at least one classmate from each of the areas my teacher listed as a ‘parallel society.’ But somehow that was not the most shocking realisation I came to that day. I think the real shock came when I realised that my teacher probably viewed my classmates and I as building blocks of these parallel societies. After all, we were all descendants of ‘non-Western’ migrants and refugees – the exact people she viewed as symbols of democratic decline in Denmark. My teacher shared the Orientalist and racist presumptions of mainstream Danish political discourse that depicted ‘non-Western’ migrants as inherently opposed to democracy, ‘European values,’ and ‘civilization.’
© Os Alvarez
The realisation left a bitter, persisting taste in my mouth. No matter how much gum I have chewed over the years, I cannot say it has really left me.
In fact, the bitter taste worsened with the introduction of the Danish ‘Ghetto Package’ (now called the ‘Parallel Society Package’) in 2018 by the former Danish government consisting of a right-wing coalition between Venstre, the Liberal Alliance, and the Conservative People’s Party. The report was an attempt to formally acknowledge the existence of ‘parallel societies’ and outline how to eliminate them. Ever since, the Danish government has categorised public social housing areas on an annual basis to decide whether they constitute ‘parallel societies.’
In Denmark, a public social housing area is labelled a parallel society when the percentage of non-western migrants and descendants in the area is above 50%. If an area has been labelled a parallel society for five consecutive years, it automatically becomes a ‘conversion area,’ previously a ‘hard ghetto.’ Last year, an additional category was introduced: ‘prevention areas.’ Only areas where non-Western migrants and their descendants make up 30% or more of the inhabitants can be designated prevention areas.
Two of four further criteria must also be fulfilled:
The percentage of unemployed citizens is above 30%
The percentage of those previously convicted is twice the national average
More than 60% only have a primary school diploma
More than 65% have an income lower than the average in the region.
Whilst these areas are all described as threats to Danish society, the common denominator for categorization is not high crime rates or any other variable that could, symbolically, explain why they are perceived as threatening. The common denominator is ‘non-Western’ ethnicity that the Danish government and body politic view as an inherent threat to the social coherence of Denmark.
The common denominator is 'non-Western' ethnicity that the Danish government and body politic view as an inherent threat to the social coherence of Denmark.
The categorization of public social housing areas according to ethnicity is intended to force integration, by applying specific policies and rules to these spaces. Thus far, there is very little evidence showing that any of the policies implemented contribute to sustainable integration. Instead, the policies, like the whole ‘Parallel Society Package’ legitimises systemic racism and the othering of ‘non-Western’ migrant communities of colour.
...the most striking policy is perhaps the one that allows, and at times, probes, social housing organisations to evict a whole household if one of its members commits a criminal act.
Many policies from the package can be used to illustrate this, but the most striking policy is perhaps the one that allows, and at times, probes, social housing organisations to evict a whole household if one of its members commits a criminal act. The policy is masked as a guarantee for the neighbours’ sense of safety, but it also applies to crimes that have been committed outside the neighbourhood and that neighbours might not feel threatened by. To most, this would seem an absurd law. Liberal Western democracies are based on the fundamental, individualistic idea that, in the eyes of the state at least, others, even family members, are not responsible for your actions. Instead, the individual, who commits a crime, is responsible for carrying the burden of their actions. It is almost common sense to us that when Martin shoplifts, he is responsible for his actions, even if another person such as his mother, father, sister, or cousin placed him in the position to do so.
Nevertheless, the policy implemented by the Danish government highlights that this fundament of liberal democracy does not apply to non-white migrant communities in Denmark. If 15-year-old Mohammed, who lives in one of the designated ‘parallel societies’ shoplifts, his mother, father, and baby sister are all held responsible for his actions. Here, an ‘alternative’ group identity and collective responsibility is imposed upon the citizens by force. Migrant communities living in ‘parallel societies’ are viewed as collectively responsible for the actions of one individual and therefore denied their individuality. But when individuality, in Western liberal thought, is an essential pillar to human dignity, how can Denmark justify policies that punish collective households of colour for the actions of one individual?
But when individuality, in Western liberal thought, is an essential pillar to human dignity, how can Denmark justify policies that punish collective households of colour for the actions of one individual?
This exact question has been the topic of discussion between my dad and I over the past month. His close Palestinian colleague and friend recently got evicted from his home in Blågården following his teenage son’s participation in a protest that turned violent in 2019. Due to the nature of the case, it is necessary to highlight that it was not just any protest. It was a counter-protest to far-right, self-proclaimed ethno-nationalist politician Rasmus Paludan’s burning of the Qur’an. My dad struggles to understand how his friend, who has no criminal record and has been employed since he came to Denmark, poses a threat so grave to his neighbours that he must be evicted. And, with all honesty, I cannot say I understand it either. But what I do understand is that this policy is one of many in Denmark’s ‘Parallel Society Package’ that relegates non-Western migrant communities to the margins of humanity.
Danish society claims to be built upon the pillars of social democracy and Western liberalism, that, allegedly, provide all individuals with equal opportunities and freedoms. But the category of ‘individual’ appears to be reserved for a specific type of Dane – particularly a white, majority-ethnic one, who can afford not to live in public social housing. It is hard to see how the logic behind the ‘Parallel Society Package’ does not disrupt the fundamental ideology upon which this country claims to be built. How can Denmark show the way internationally, as a progressive beacon for social democracy, when migrant communities of colour are treated like this? At the moment it remains a false promise that everyone in Denmark is granted the personhood fundamental to human dignity.